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Noel Laporte

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What form of renewable energy has or will have the lowest impact on biodiversity?

Climate change, air pollution, rising sea levels and species extinction can all be attributed to the increasing usage of non-renewable energy in the world today. Non-renewable energy reserves are diminishing and finite with an ever-increasing demand from countries around the world. Coal, natural gas and oil all have detrimental effects on the environment. These effects are both local and global, harming species throughout the world. As we consider different renewable forms of energy, can we rank their potential impacts on biodiversity?

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    Apr 22 2013: I think that nuclear power is a very viable option for minimizing the effect, of energy production, on biodiversity worldwide. In comparison, to standard sources of energy, nuclear energy produce, "...wastes (that) comprise less than 1% of total industrial toxic wastes." (*)

    A recent study into the effect of renewable energy has revealed that nuclear power comes in third behind wind and hydroelectric power (**); in terms of its effect on climate change. Climate change being one of the most significant impacts on biodiversity. Although nuclear power does produce significant physical waste, it does not pose any threats to bird populations (as do wind turbines) nor does it threaten local fish and aquatic wildlife (as do dams producing hydroelectric power). In conclusion, in terms of threat to ecosystems worldwide I believe nuclear power to be the ultimate choice if our goal is to conserve global biodiversity.

    I think that physical waste is the biggest threat to biological diversity and by reducing waste we can seriously diminish the human effect on ecosystems across the globe. Although, nuclear power instills fear in many people, it is actually one of the safest forms of energy; if safety regulations worldwide are sufficiently increased we can avoid incidents such as those experienced in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

    Sources:
    (*) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Nuclear-Wastes/Radioactive-Waste-Management/#.UXWlhqLrywI
    (**) Moomaw, W., P. Burgherr, G. Heath, M. Lenzen, J. Nyboer, A. Verbruggen, 2011: Annex II: Methodology. In IPCC: Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (ref. page 10)
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      Apr 22 2013: Hi Ben! I thought you might be interested in Nuclear Fusion ala Taylor Wilson http://www.ted.com/talks/taylor_wilson_yup_i_built_a_nuclear_fusion_reactor.html. Not a lot of detail here on the feasibility of using this to supply the world's energy needs.

      Check out this debate between Stewart Brand (we discussed his de-extinction ideas) and Mark Jacobson http://www.ted.com/talks/debate_does_the_world_need_nuclear_energy.html.
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        Apr 23 2013: fusion is not viable in the foreseeable future. in fact, it is not sure that it will ever be viable. in particular, the method wilson talks about is known to be unfeasible for energy production. the concept is well known for a long time, and you can actually buy commercial grade devices any time. it is used in laboratories all around the globe as a neutron source. some research has been conducted to make it into a power plant, but they were abandoned very early due to unresolvable practical problems.
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      Apr 23 2013: One of the biggest issues is the storing of nuclear waste. Currently the Hanford Nuclear Site, which was used for weapons production during WWII, is begining to leak into the groundwater and then into the Columbia River due to inefficient and containment facilities that were only meant to funtion for 10 to 20 years. This is a huge threat to the organisms and the people who depend on the river for food and fresh water to irrigate millions of acres of agriculture. There is also the issue of the environmental degradation due to mining for uranium. The refining, enrichment, and production process produces radioactive isotopes that profoundly affect the entire ecosystem in which it is done.

      We need to think even cleaner, i think.
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        Apr 23 2013: I agree with Paige. Nuclear power may help reduce CO2 emissions but we need to come up with an energy source that does not have the potential to cause problems in the future. Having nuclear waste leaking into environments and ecosystems can cause serious problems.
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          Apr 23 2013: I agree that we need cleaner energy sources than even nuclear, but i agree with Ben's original comment that nuclear seems to currently be by far our best option for power in the short term. As others have mentioned in this conversation, solar, biofuel, and wind power require huge tracts of land to get even a reasonable yield, and the processes involved in the production of turbines and the like are far from green. Additionally, utilizing waves (or wind, or even sunlight) as an energy source could very likely have unforseen consequences, as we do not know if/to what extent utilizing these resources could affect ocean or air currents or other large-scale systems.
          Also, on the topic of hydroelectric power utilization, dams are obviously a massively disruptive barrier to any ecosystem, potentially harming biodiversity, but I really like Krista's earlier point that they could have some of the absolute lowest long-term costs. I hadn't before considered the fact that damage caused from dams can be naturally recovered without too much trouble once the dam is gone, and that is an important positive factor.

          I reiterate, I certainly don't think nuclear fission is the end-all power source, but right now, trying to fix all these myriad anthropogenic problems with our planet while attempting to provide energy to humanity, it's triage, and decisions need to be made. The extraction and refining of nuclear fuels will likely continue to be an issue, but with waste, I feel like we should start using the moon- there's no biodiversity up there to mess up. Now, this almost sounds like a silly idea, but i feel like it's a good one- I assume the reason it's not done right now must be the prohibitive cost, but ideally, with technological advances, we should be able to put as much potentially biologically harmful waste up there as we want, in a cost-effective way.


          The moon: earth's wastebasket. . . . someday?
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          Apr 23 2013: Hi Ben! I can think of a number of reasons why it would be risky to put nuclear waste on the moon. What would happen to nuclear waste if something went wrong during transit between the Earth and the moon?
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        Mario R

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        Apr 23 2013: What happens when we colonize the moon too? We don't want to have to wade through nuclear waste. I think that in order to start working towards a long term solution, we have to change our current habits. For example, start turning off lights around the house that aren't being used! Try to take half the duration of shower each morning, or even better, shower every other day! Bundle in layers instead of turning on the heat. If we start reducing our usage of energy, the demand for energy won't be as great! I think that if we do start limiting our energy usage, we can reliably rely upon other methods of sustainable energy.

        Also, another suggestion could be to replace lamps around the house with the stylish gravity powered lamp (not yet available retail)!

        http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2250424/The-GRAVITY-powered-lamp-bring-1-5billion-people-darkness.html
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          Apr 23 2013: I like your suggestion to shower every other day, not only will it save energy in heating the water but it will be better for us in the long run. It's been scientifically proven that showering removes all the good bacteria from your skin and makes it so you get sick easy. That's why I never shower anymore, at my age I can't afford to get sick and miss times with my grand kids. :-)

          -Todd C.
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          Apr 23 2013: Hey Mario, really good point about changing our habits. The core issue here isn't what technology we use, its the fact that we consume too much! People look at improved and new technology as our answer, but I think we need to take a step back and reexamine our lifestyles. We don't need as much energy as we currently use.
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          Apr 23 2013: If we colonize the moon we could just go to the part with no nuclear waste... Not only do we not need the whole surface of the moon, the technology to completely colonize (as in, there's so many people there that we're actually running into a problem with nuclear waste being around) a lifeless sphere where half of it stays dark all the time is thousands of years away.

          Transporting nuclear waste ever, in any capacity, is risky, i just think getting it out of the biosphere is the best thing to do. We're just as likely to screw up sequestering it somewhere on earth as we are to screw up transporting it to the moon, by my reckoning. Additionally, once it's on the moon we're home free, there's no life up there, and it's not going to spread since there's no wind or air on the moon. I feel like transporting risk and cost are the only downsides here, both of which continue to shrink as technology improves.


          This is far from an ideal solution, but i feel like it's good for our situation now. More research into better, safer power sources is important. We need to step up our moon game though.
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          Apr 23 2013: Individual action is not enough. We still have industry, we have wars, we have an expanding economy, and we have humanity. Turning off lights, taking half showers may be great for your pocket-book, but it makes a marginal impact on the amount of emissions from a coal-fire electric plant.

          The question we must ask ourselves is not what can we do around the house, but what can we do together to change our energy consumption habits. Individual effort is great, however, mass collective action is crucial if we want a sustainable, carbon-neutral future
        • Apr 24 2013: I've got to agree with the past comments in this string. I think that although solar, wind, wave, and nuclear are all technologies we have now, it's obvious from the TEDtalks and ongoing debates that current technology isn't exactly feasible yet to maintain (or increase) biodiversity AND continue to fuel our habits. I believe that by enacting small changes, such as the aforementioned energy friendly appliance standards, tighter CO2 emission regulation, tax credits, and other options that nearly every person could partake in is the way to go to begin to decrease CO2 emissions. This will not only decrease the amount of energy consumed per person, but allowing people to be included in on this movement may increase the interest in investing and exploring new technologies. I also agree that individual change isn't going to create a radical energy revolution (because not everyone is going to be willing to give up certain energy benefits), so what about recent proposals for energy could bring about these new technologies?

          In Amory Lovins' TEDtalk called "The End of Oil", he proposes solving the United States' energy problem by "re-inventing fire". What he means by this is getting rid of those energy technologies that have negative side effects, such as CO2 emissions by coal and fossil fuel burning (for electricity and vehicles), in exchange for a combination of already invented "green" tech. Although this is not an immediate fix-all for maintaining biodiversity, and that surely was not the purpose of his presentation, he stresses that by breaking the new contributors for electricity and transportation into the subgroups of wind, solar, geothermal, hydro power it will allow for the speed in which new technologies are introduced to increase.

          Amory Lovins' TEDtalk: http://www.ted.com/playlists/58/the_end_of_oil.html
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          Apr 24 2013: The immediate future needs the continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas while moving away from oil and coal). While the continued use of fossil fuels further exacerbates problems such as global warming, the danger of slowing down economic growth is too great. In the west, we have the luxury of being concerned about the environment due to the security we enjoy. However, as soon as a crisis arises, the argument always seems to come down to "jobs versus the environment". Extreme solutions that limit the growth our system is based upon have the potential for backlash in creating resentment towards clean energy and creating movements against it.

          The environmental Kuznets curve predicts that as an economy becomes more developed, it will initially cause more damage to its environment and then, after a turning point, begin to do less. Currently, most developing countries are on the upward portion of the curve while western countries (with the "luxury of caring") are on the downward side. Allowing for continued growth in the developing world (while policing the externalization of western nation's pollution) is a key to protecting future biodiversity. (It sounds like a catch-22, but the truth of the matter is that we cannot prevent the developing world from developing so we should allow it to develop as smoothly as possible).

          http://isecoeco.org/pdf/stern.pdf
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        Apr 23 2013: I agree. From what I've read so far there is a lot of support for nuclear energy, but as you mentioned, the reason why nuclear energy isn't super popular is because... well it's nuclear and the wastes it generates. The most popular method to dispose of nuclear waste is burying it in the ground essentially which is just all sorts of problems.

        However, I remember a few years ago there was this giant idea about sending waste into the far reaches of space. What's your thoughts on that? I understand that space travel right now is expensive to the point where it's not cost efficient, but what about in the future when space travel is cheaper?

        "There are three good reasons to send nuclear waste into space. First, it is safe. Second, space disposal is better than the alternative, underground burial. Third, it may finally open the door to widespread utilization of space. " (http://www.thespacereview.com/article/437/1)

        Just to play devil advocate, if you think about it. Space is literally endless which can mean an endless amount of area to dispose of waste. Naturally as long as it's far enough away from out planet. At the same time... we have nuclear waste floating around in space.
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          Apr 23 2013: I like this idea but I feel like once we're at that tech level we should use lifeless planets or moons for disposal, to know where potentially harmful substances are, and just because generally anything could happen if you fling stuff out into space- we could anger our alien overlords, or accidentally destroy a pristine new earth-like planet, or who knows. Space is the place.
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          Mario R

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          Apr 23 2013: I am inclined to disagree with sending nuclear waste into space. As you said Ben, it is possible that our alien overlords would be angered to the point of invasion, however I think this is a temporary solution to an ongoing problem. Sending nuclear matter into space is expanding the problem. There are too many uncontrolled variables, such as nuclear matter ending up on earth like planets as you have mentioned. In that scenario, we have had an impact not only on the species on our own planet, but species on other planets as well. Or what if the nuclear matter were to react to the composition elements of other stars? Would that in turn be the end of a different solar system?
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          Apr 24 2013: There is actually already a problem with man made debris pollution in space knocking satellites out of orbit, outlined in this article http://www.economist.com/node/16843825 so I'm not sure that sending any more waste, whether it is nuclear or not, is a good idea until we can figure out how to make sure satellites are secure.
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        Apr 23 2013: no, it is not a huge threat. it is a very minor, almost insignificant threat. fukushima dumped quite a lot of radioactive waste into the ocean, and the wildlife is totally unaffected. chernobyl dumped a ginormous amount of radioactivity on the surrounding forests, killing all animals for a decade, but now the biosystem is "back on line". and these are tragedies of grand scale. a small leakage has virtually no effect on the environment.
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        Apr 23 2013: I believe that Nuclear waste can and should only being stored until we figure out ways to break it down and possibly even use it as a secondary energy source. It's unrealistic to think that we can store mass volumes of substances this dangerous with any potentials contamination or environmental damage. Renewable energy services need to take into account safe and effective waste disposal services.
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          Apr 23 2013: it might sound unrealistic, but we already do that for decades now. as technology progresses, such a task gets easier and easier.
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      Apr 23 2013: I would agree with many of the comments here that propose nuclear power as our next major source of energy. The main issue is that we cannot let nuclear become our LAST energy source. Nuclear power plants provide a huge amount of energy once they are constructed, and they are being built all across the world. In South East Asia there is underway what has been called a "nuclear renaissance," as developing nations turn to nuclear power to attain energy security and enable economic development. However, the issues of uranium mining and waste disposal can't be ignored. Nuclear can provide a stepping stone, an intermediate energy strategy that we can make use of while more renewable technologies are developed and implemented. What is most important is that our CURRENT sources of energy (i.e. coal, oil, and natural gas) be set aside as soon as possible.
      Nuclear power definitely has a public image problem in the wake of Fukushima though; it won't be easy to convince some people that building more nuclear plants is a step in the right direction. Part of the issue comes down to a kind of psychological issue called the availability heuristic. Risks are perceived as greater when a specific or dramatic example comes to mind more easily. This is why people don't fear car accidents as much as they do plane crashes. Car accidents happen so frequently, they aren't sensational. They don't have a lot of salience (unless you've experienced one personally), and so not much emotional significance is attached to them. How does this fit in with nuclear? Imagine the reaction of Japan's government and public to the Fukushima disaster; an entire nation turns against nuclear overnight. Meanwhile in China, thousands of miners die every year extracting coal. The very coal that Japan will need to import to make up for shutting down nuclear plants! Nuclear power has enormous potential, as long as we design them safely and figure out a viable solution for disposing of waste.
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        Apr 23 2013: this stepping stone can last hundreds of years. i don't think that we need to solve 2200's problems now. just imagine if people of 1800 would have been assigned the task to come up with solutions to today's problems.
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        Apr 23 2013: Alex this is definitely a promising idea, one current initiative is the development of using the U-238 instead of the current U-239. Unlike light-water reactors (LWRs), TWRs (Traveling wave reactors) use only a small amount (~10%) of enriched uranium-235 or other fissile fuel to initiate the nuclear reaction. The remainder of the fuel consists of natural or depleted uranium-238, the current waste of today's nuclear reactors. This fourth generation nuclear reactor could convert all current nuclear waste into fuel and is currently being developed by a team lead by Bill Gates called, "Terra power".

        http://www.terrapower.com/
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          Apr 23 2013: That is fantastic! I wonder what the downsides are, or what issues would prevent these reactors from being implemented on a large enough scale?
          Nuclear power in general offers an advantage over many other alternative energy sources in that it is easily scalable. Nuclear power plants could provide power to very large areas, without too much additional infrastructure being developed, and they aren't site-specific like wind turbines, dams, solar panels, etc. I suppose there are some sites you want to avoid... like tsunami prone areas.

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